Claire Rayner: I'm leaving the Labour Party after 50 faithful years

'It has gone so far to the right it's out of sight; principle has been sacrificed to power''

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Ending a relationship hurts. There is an almost physical pain as you go from the first twinges of doubt, via ever more sinking sensations as you realise your old love really has changed, to the sick certainty that he is lying to you. And then you realise the end has come. It is time to move on, to a new lover perhaps, but certainly to acceptance that the old one has abandoned you.

The language of the agony column may not seem suitable for discussion of a political decision, but it is apt. An individual's attachment to a belief system can be powerful and, in many ways, mimics falling in love. First the awareness of the potential lover's existence and then the discovery that he shares so many of your ideals that it is as though he was made for you.

That happened to me in July 1945. I was 14, and had been strongly influenced by a teacher at school who started me reading the work of people such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Robert Tressell. I had learned about John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt ("When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"). In every classroom debate I was the resident republican and atheist. I could not have been more ripe to fall in love with the Labour party.

And fall I did. They wouldn't let me help to campaign locally ("too young" they said) but, still, that was the start of my love. The birth of the NHS, while I was working as a nurse cadet in a hospital supported by local contributions (we went out on Saturdays rattling collection tins), intensified this love.

Twelve years of NHS nursing, followed by many more years of health education in the media (yes, that is what an agony column is, or mine certainly was) deepened my attach-ment to the Health Service and 17 years of Thatcherism confirmed it, I believed, for ever. For me, 1 May 1997 was a day of intense joy.

So how is it that just four years later, I am appearing in a party political broadcast for the Liberal Democrats? What happened to this Labour voter after 50 faithful years?

Ironically it was the Labour government's appointment of me as a Royal Commissioner, when it decided to look into the financing of Long-term Care for the Elderly, that started the rot.

I was eager to do the job. From my own mail bag during the That-cher and Major years, as well as from my work as President of the Patient's Association, I knew that all was far from well in elderly care.

My appointment tightened my attachment to Labour; they would soon put things right, I believed.

Disillusionment set in fast. One of our number, we came to believe, had been put in to control us. We understood our remit was to seek a just and caring system for elderly care. His was to make sure we didn't upset the Treasury.

He wrote a dissenting report to the one which 10 of us had enthusiastically provided. He made it to the House of Lords at the very next Honours round, and the rest of us settled down to wait for a Government response. We waited 15 months. When it came, it was a painful blow. Our key recommendation, that all nursing care should be free, was rejected.

We believed – as do many experts in the field – that nursing care is not just giving injections and applying dressings but includes satisfying all feeding, washing and lavatory needs. The Government, however, decided that this is "personal care", that it is the same as "social care" and therefore should be paid for by the person needing it. And paid for out of means-tested savings which include the value of the person's home.

They've gone further. In partial response, perhaps, to the roar of anger this decision drew from a wide range of organisations and individuals they have promised nursing care will be free in future.

And they are lying.

All they will pay for is treatment provided by Registered Nurses – those dressings and jabs – on a banding system. The most that will be paid is £110 a week. The other bands will provide £70 or £35 weekly. Ask at your local Nursing Agency and see what you can get for that...

The cost of all the other care will still be met from personal savings and home sales, and it is the latter that seems most cruel to me. All hope of rehabilitation after, say, a stroke, fizzles away. Why bother to rehabilitate if you have no habitation to go to?

This is the major but not the only reason why I've fallen out of love with Labour. There is also their attitudes on fees for university students, provision for one-parent families and the disabled – it all shows that Labour has gone so far to the right it's out of sight. Principle has been sacrificed to power. Because I have stayed in the same place, they've betrayed me, and many voters like me.

If all the people who are equally disenchanted with Labour moved to the Lib Dems, then Labour would get what it needs very badly. A powerful opposition.

As for me, I still grieve. Fifty years is a long time.

clairerayner@harrowhill.demon.co.uk

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